La Revue du Cinéma
Mystery of Georges Simenon
The 10 Cinema Maigrets
Simenon on the Screen
On Jean Gabin
On Pierre Renoir
On Harry Baur
On Albert Préjean
|In the twenty-first volume of his dictations, "Destinies", September 29, 1979, Simenon tells of his life as a young reporter on the Gazette de Liège, discovering the underside of his native city, its small secrets, its schemers and fiddlers. By association with images, he thinks about the movies, regarding which he summarizes his philosophy in about a hundred lines*.|
" ... In Paris, in the beginning, earning a living laboriously enough writing stories and popular novels, I had to be passionately fond of the movies that the intellectuals and the upper middle class of the time still regarded scornfully.
And so I lived in what I could call the glorious era of the cinematograph, to use the word favored by Jean Renoir.
We were not yet friends, but I often saw him, as well as René Clair, Jean Epstein, Cavalcanti, and others whose names I've forgotten.
Vaster than a Cathedral...
Certainly, there were immense buildings on the Grand Boulevards, where, in a luxurious atmosphere, the great commercial films were shown.
I only once set foot in one of these, the Paramount, vaster than a cathedral, holding an audience of around three thousand. This establishment had even conceived of and devised an immense platform which, like an elevator, rose out of the floor during the intermission between the two films, uncovering an orchestra of about hundred musicians, while showgirls danced on the stage.
But this opulence didn't attract me, and I preferred to go far on foot to the Left Bank, to a small, fairly shabby room called the Ursulines, which was like a breeding ground for avant-garde producers.
The first film I saw there, The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari [Le cabinet du docteur Caligari], the work of a German expressionist, opened for me, as for many others, new horizons. The futuristic sets didn't try to emulate reality, and I saw in that a real revolution of the movies.
It was also at the Ursulines that Jean Renoir's first film was shown, The Little Match Girl [La petite marchande d'allumettes], with Catherine Hessling playing the tearful, big-eyed girl.
There too I was enthralled to watch Entr'acte, by a young René Clair, who hardly imagined himself one day a member of the Académie Française. It was a crazy film, achieved as best he could with the help of his friends, portraying, among other scenes, a funeral, with the classic hearse of the time followed by a crowd of walkers, in the first rank of which could be recognized the immense glasses of Marcel Achard. At a certain moment, the horse pulling the hearse bolts, and the entire cortege has to start running faster and faster.
René Clair's The Italian Straw Hat [Le chapeau de paille d'Italie] was soon followed by a film by Epstein, a more sentimental story, but one in which, throughout the piece, you never saw anything but the legs and feet of the protagonists.
Wasn't it in this same room that we saw Fritz Lang's Metropolis, with its futuristic cities so similar to the big cities of today? I believe that I was enamored with the female star with the sculptural body, whose name I've now forgotten.
It was then the holy of holies of the cinema. Like aficionados of bullfights, one part of the audience would begin to hiss, while others endeavored to quiet them down, and it was not rare that a general fight followed, with the unavoidable intervention of the police, that somehow or other took a certain number of spectators to the station.
These are my best memories of the movies. All the producers whom I looked upon as young gods soon became my friends, and, in this case once more, I felt myself a little behind the scenes, and considered with pity or disdain the sheep who crammed into the halls of the Grand Boulevards.
I only went once to meet which actor or actress I don't remember to the Pathé-Nathan studios in Joinville, where they manufactured on the assembly line the popular, heroic or tear-jerker films. It was the cinema of big business, and that didn't interest me.
I quickly returned to the little hall of the Ursulines or one of the two other avant-garde rooms that appeared shortly after, the Vieux-Colombier for one, and Studio 28, in Montmartre.
Those three united all the lovers of the New Cinema like Montparnasse united the painters of the time, from Soutine to Vlaminck, Foujita to Derain, and so many others whose names evoke most countries of the world.
Intermission at the bistro
There too, I felt like I was behind the scenes, and a lot of those artists became my good friends.
Later, when I lived about six miles from La Rochelle, I got in the habit of going every Saturday to one of the popular theaters that showed two movies every evening, not counting the long intermission, during which the audience hurried to the bistro belonging to the same owner and which brought in more than the films.
I won't say anything about the films. They corresponded more or less in quality to the popular novels that I wrote while endeavoring as much possible to create a suitable tone and to either make the reader laugh or cry at the right moment.
What attracted me was the crowd that reacted so admirably to all the small tricks of the authors. I also liked rubbing shoulders with the people, with whom I felt connected, and, like everyone else, I was going to drink my glass of beer at the intermission.
Since then, I've gone to the movies less and less, except to see the works of my friends, and for over ten years I haven't set foot in a theater.
They've made more than sixty films based on my novels. I've only seen four or five of them. In the same way I never look at televised adaptations of my works.
At the least, as in my adolescence, I've been up to date on provincial intrigues, known, from the side of producers and actors, the difficulties of achieving an authentic work, and the manipulations of producers, co-producers, financiers and the rest."
A piece for the cinema
The excellent journalist, Doringe, collected and published in Ciné-France (9 April 1937) a major interview, never quoted: "... What bothers me, is that there are people who extract a scenario from such and such work... and then they act... as if they had created something. If they are really scenarists, why don't they produce original scripts? ... If one day the cinema really interests me, I will learn to make a cutting, and I will make one of my flim, and present it to a producer. Doesn't one learn to make a scenario like one learns to write a play? A cutting, it's a piece for the cinema, instead for the theater, with its own rules, particulars, and optics, unique to the movies... ... I myself wrote the piece taken from Quartier nègre and it was a veritable triumph at Brussels. In the same way, if a film of Quartier nègre is made one day, I will write the script myself, because I don't want a fiddler! And I will stay close to the producer from the first turn of the crank to the last." A producer whom he wished to be able to choose himself.
He declares himself, in passing, for natural scenery, as opposed to the painted canvas: "A month doesn't go by without someone proposing to me to make a film of one or the other of my books. For my part, I would like to do Les Pitard but in Rome, in Hamburg, in Reykjavik, Fécamp, and above all at sea I would like to make Quartier nègre, but in Panama. Because the theater admits this convention against which it is impotent by nature: the backdrop. Marseilles, Bourg-en-Bresse, the Pampas, Corneville or the Tuileries: the backdrop. But the cinema moves. Its exterior shots are truly outside. Why shouldn't they be true exteriors? ... A Panama installed in the heart of the Camargue doesn't have anything that seduces me!"
Anxious to be associated with 'international' class movies, in 'two versions' ('indispensable'), Simenon also requires that their financing be healthy: Les Pitard, like Quartier nègre, would cost three million. ... I would definitely not want to begin work without there being at least two million in the bank. ... Two million that, clearly understood, would not put us under the supervision of distributors nor of managers."
But there's a catch: "... People who have the sacred fire of the cinema there are still some producers like that, enough to make a squad or two, but from five or six nations rarely have enough money to make a film of 'international' class. So, instead of making a film for three million that will bring them back another three, they make one for twelve to fifteen hundred thousand francs that, with a lot of luck, will bring back three hundred, and with less luck won't even cover its expenses. ... Such a film virtually announces its mediocrity in advance, and is often begun with hardly any cash on hand. The studio? On credit, therefore more expensive. Film? On credit, therefore more expensive. The artists? While is often the case that a part of their fee may be on credit, even with a surcharge this credit may stay unpaid forever. For the most part, it is necessary to pay cash.
Cash that they don't have.
Where does it come from? Bills discounted at the highest rate by so-called specialized bankers in this kind of business and who, in the present state of things, are the only real beneficiaries of the film industry. It sometimes happens, and it is one of the most beautiful turns of fate, that one of these gentlemen, by dint of manipulating these producers' bills, feels knowledgeable enough about the film, its spirit and its mysteries, to want to throw himself into the fray... and then he will soon know himself the joy of the heavy discount.
To pay this time!
As is fair. How could you make a good film if, to begin, it were necessary to consult with a dozen distributors, who, each in their turn, go to ask the opinion of about hundred theater managers? Because, if the producer pulls on the distributor, the distributor covers himself with the operator, so that it is he who eventually becomes the real backer. A hidden backer, but conscious, and one whose opinion inevitably influences the production."
A shared confidence, amusing in retrospect: "I would like to use Jean Gabin he would suit certain of my characters well, and he is a great actor. But it troubles me that he never loosens up, as if he's forgotten how to smile... I would like to see him in his jovial, happy moments, next to the hard and dramatic ones..."
Gabin who, since Le Marie du port, will have some ten Simenon/Maigrets to his credit... In 1977, in his dictée 'Point-Virgule', Simenon evokes the first two Maigrets: 'Fatty,' so-called by his son Jean ("a snob to the tips of his fingernails" and nothing less than "a brain"), Abel Tarride, "an enormous fellow who played a little like they used to play at the Porte Saint-Martin, "had an enormous stomach and jowls: he was more disposed to make you laugh than to represent the Police judiciaire." Quite the opposite, "Pierre Renoir, the right arm of Louis Jouvet, had understood that a main commissioner of the P.J. is a civil servant. He acted and dressed as a civil servant, always keeping his dignity, and his look somewhat vacant and questioning." And Simenon concludes: "Pierre Renoir, Jean's eldest brother" (Jean: "my friend, perhaps my best friend"), was "in my opinion the best Maigret."
The faces of Maigret
An opinion shared by... Maigret himself! (in Maigret's Memoirs, 1951, Chapter 2): "It's a strange sensation to watch on the screen, coming and going, speaking and blowing his nose, a fellow who pretends to be you, who borrows certain of your habits, utters sentences that you have uttered, in circumstances that you have known, through which you have lived, in settings that have sometimes been reconstructed with meticulous care.
Actually, the first screen Maigret, Pierre Renoir, was fairly true to life. I had become a little taller, a little slimmer. The face was different, of course, but certain attitudes were so striking that I suspect the actor of having observed me unawares.
A few months later, I grew some six inches shorter, and what I lost in height I gained in girth, becoming, in the shape of Abel Tarride, obese and bland, so flabby that I looked like an inflated rubber animal about to float up to the ceiling. Not to mention the knowing winks with which I underlined my own discoveries and my cunning tricks!
I couldn't sit the film out, and my tribulations were not yet over. Harry Baur was no doubt a great actor, but he was a full twenty years older than I then was, with a set of features that was flabby and tragic at the same time.
Let's move along!
After growing twenty years older, I suddenly grew almost that much younger again, a good deal later, with a certain Préjean, about whom I have no complaint to make any more than about the rest of them but who looked far more like certain young inspectors of the present generation than those of my own.
And finally, quite lately, I have been made to grow stout again, almost to bursting point, and I have begun, in the shape of Charles Laughton, to use English as my native tongue.
Well, of all those, there was one at least who had the good taste to cheat Simenon and to consider my truth more valid than his.
The final testimony of the author, dating to the middle sixties and reported by Fenton Bresler (in The Mystery of Georges Simenon, Beaufort, 1983, pages 217 and 218): "Despite the frequently quoted statement that he has never watched Maigret on either cinema or television screen, Simenon has his own very strong views on many of the actors who have played the part. "The three best Frenchmen have been Pierre Renoir, the very first one, because he understood that Maigret was a civil servant and made him behave like one; Michel Simon, who, although he played the part only once, was quite an extraordinary Maigret; and, of course, Jean Gabin, who I don't think ever saw a police commissaire such as Maigret in action and was really rather too sloppy in his personal appearance, with his tie not properly done up and that sort of thing, yet invested the role with his own singular authority."
"Jean Richard may be 'Maigret' for most French people because of all those television films, but for me he is quite honestly the worst. He is very bad. He acts as if he has seen too many American films with gangsters and gigolos. He will arrive at an old lady's or wherever wearing his hat and not take it off. He doesn't say, 'Good morning' but just 'Commissaire Maigret'. He goes on smoking and keeps his hat on all the time he's there and he leaves in the same way. That shocked me. A Divisional Commissaire that's equivalent to a Superintendent at Scotland Yard does have a certain amount of education. He knows that you don't visit people with your hat on and smoking a pipe."
"Of the non-French 'Maigrets', Charles Laughton did his best but was really rather terrible. Gino Cervi, the Italian actor, was very good. But it was Rupert Davies, who was really the best. I would put him on a par with Michel Simon. I got to know him and his wife and children very well. He was a very nice man and he did his best to feel his way into the part. I remember him visiting me at Echandens before he began the series and asking me to explain how Maigret behaved with his pipe, and all that."
"One thing was rather amusing. I remember him saying to me: 'Madame Maigret, as soon as she hears Maigret's footsteps on the stairs coming home, opens the door to him. It's as if she felt he was coming and he never needs to use his key. But what does Maigret do when he sees her? Should he kiss her or what?' I got the young chambermaid to come over and did this..." he gives a practical demonstration of smacking her bottom "and Rupert Davies, who was very English, blushed!"
"'That's what you must do,' I said, and that's how I showed him. It was only an affectionate gesture... nothing sexual... but all the same you could see that he had some difficulty in doing it. Yet he really was very good!"
"The best 'Madame Maigret' in my opinion, even including the French ones, was the 'Madame Maigret' on Japanese television. She was exactly right."
All the photos illustrating this article have been lent amiably by Claude Gauteur.
* Destinées, Presses de la Cité, 1981, pages 78 to 82. Cf "Georges Simenon et le cinéma, le cinéma et Georges Simenon", in La Revue du Cinéma n° 270, March 1973 and n° 335, January 1979.
translated by Steve Trussel, Jan. 9, 2003